Thursday, October 15, 2009

The future of higher education: All about access?

The Washington Post recently published an interesting article about what the future holds for education in light of an increase in online/distance learning. And apparently, I wasn't the only one who found it interesting, because The Chronicle picked up on the buzz too. Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts -- the Dean of Students here at Peirce -- and I were discussing what we thought of the article, and our conversation got me thinking about how we approach things in general here at Peirce.

First, I’m always leery of predictions -- especially considering how rapidly things change today -- so I’m skeptical of the Post's Zephyr Teachout’s conclusions about the future of education as we know it. The Chronicle's Laurie Fendrich makes several good points in her response, but there is one particular statement she makes that I take exception to:


“Those who embrace distance learning as a reasonable substitute for students going to college argue their case in the name of efficiency and productivity.”
That’s the exact opposite of our educational goals at Peirce College. We trumpet the case for online learning in the name of access to education. It’s not about “efficiency and productivity,” it's about access to high-quality education and leveling the playing field for the single mom, the busy worker, and the U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who want to better themselves through education.

We serve our students by focusing on our commitment to accessible education. Doing so has allowed us to support our students through particular avenues, such as managing class size, promoting student to faculty interaction, and maintaining faculty connections.

In most cases, a working adult often can’t commit to a class that meets every week at a specific, set time. Life happens. Work and family responsibilities sometimes get in the way. So if having the online option is the difference that allows our students to make the commitment to their education, and fit it in with the rest of their lives, that’s what access is all about. We make sure we are flexible and consistent in what we offer, no matter how students choose to take courses.

Dr. Toliver-Roberts also reminded me of an important principle we’ve embraced at Peirce. When Peirce education went online, our culture went with it. While her point speaks to a larger theme that we will certainly address in a future post, in this case she emphasized the fact that we aren’t lessening the quality of our education because we’re offering it online. Instead, we're simply offering online the quality education we've offered consistently over our 144-year history.

What it all comes down to is the fact that it’s not an online degree we’re offering -- it’s an educational degree. In our opinion, when it comes to adapting to the new technologies and trends that become available, such as online courses and distance learning, institutions need to stay committed to just that: education. Access is about cultivating what works, while also embracing the new so that quality education is available to more students.

The more that institutions of higher education focus on access -- access to quality education, faculty, and all the resources that a school has -- the better and more educated its students become.